Child’s Play

Children have very clear ideas about what they like and dislike, which makes them honest and highly responsive clients. Get them involved in the design process and you will find that, when it comes to creating cosy bedrooms and practical playrooms, the kids are all right

A well known interior designer (who will remain nameless to spare their blushes) was recently fired from a project by a 12 year old. Fortunately for the sanity of interior designers everywhere, not many parents go so far as to give their offspring the power to hire and fire. However, they increasingly expect their children to participate in the commissioning process.

Anita Kohn, director of Living in Space, finds it normal for children to be consulted about the design of their rooms. ‘When it comes to colour, form and functionality, children have strong opinions and can be very critical,’ she says.

Simon Hamilton of Simon Hamilton Associates and international director of the British Institute of Interior Design has also had design meetings with youngsters and been surprised by the originality of their ideas. One teenage girl instructed him to watch the film Marie Antoinette to understand what she wanted for her bedroom, while an 11 year old wanted her room to have a Moroccan theme. ‘Children really respond to you when you are interested in them,’ he says. ‘They are honest about their likes and dislikes so make excellent clients because you get good feedback.’

Parents may commission a new room as a surprise and, while this sometimes works well (Joanna Wood’s daughter was thrilled when her mother secretly revamped a room with a pink pony theme), others have had more stressful experiences. Designer Orna O’Reilly had to rip out a design and start again when a child took one look at the new bedroom her mother had commissioned and collapsed into tears.

‘A house move or room change can be quite traumatic for a child,’ warns Karen Howes of Taylor Howes. ‘But when they feel they have a choice, they completely buy into it.’ Some designers go further than just consulting the children, they work with them. Kitty-Lynne Edwards-Jones of Kitty-Lynne Jones Interior Design allowed a 10-year-old girl to help position some tiles in a playroom she was working on. ‘Psychologically it’s really important that they don’t feel like you are imposing something on them—and children love having an input,’ she says.

Of course, there’s a danger that the designer could end up as an unhappy piggy in the middle, forced to mediate between parents and children with opposing ideas. ‘If you are clever,’ says Wood, ‘you make the children feel totally involved and then do what the mother wants!� And it is definitely Mum who’s in charge. ‘Fathers have absolutely nothing to do with it, unless the child is a little boy and the dad wants the Ferrari bed,’ jokes Howes.

In general, clients keep a tight rein on the budget for children’s spaces. Debra Kacher from DK Interiors says: ‘I usually design children’s rooms on a much smaller budget.’ She finds that clients are happy to accept furniture from John Lewis, Habitat, Dwell or even Ikea because they don’t want to put big money into rooms that will suffer an excess of wear and tear and have a limited lifespan. Hamilton says: ‘I’m often told not to go too far in terms of budget for a child’s room, even when money is no object in the rest of the house.’

‘There will always be clients with a huge budget and a willingness to indulge their offspring with whatever they want,’ says Kohn. ‘However, even very wealthy clients are aware that spending an enormous amount on something that will be grown out of quickly is not the best use of their funds.’ The exceptions, says Wood, are ‘the Americans, who are very generous with their children, and the Russians, for whom the sky is the limit.’

Designers have lots of tips for keeping costs down. Hamilton has become adept at transforming children’s rooms on a budget. For the Marie Antoinette room, for example, he kept the girl’s existing bed but covered the headboard with padding and black-and-white decoration, used sticky-blacked plastic to create a sculpted look to the wardrobe and made a thickly padded velvet board for her to hang trinkets on. ‘I don’t think it’s worth buying designer stuff for children’s rooms,’ says Edwards-Jones. ‘You can use lashings and lashings of cheap material for curtains to make it look voluptuous and rich.’

Children’s needs and tastes change quickly. Wood says: ‘I always remind clients that their little treasure will one day be a hulking 14 year old and we need to plan accordingly.’ She has identified three phases in designing for children. The first phase, the nursery with its cot and changing table, lasts for about three years. ‘This is the one chance the parents have to really indulge themselves and go as wild as they like with Peter Rabbit themes and so on,’ she says. ‘We tended to paint nurseries yellow or green in the old days but now that mothers to be can find out the sex of their baby, these days we can decorate accordingly in blue or pink.’

Phase two, which lasts until a child is six or seven, is when the cot makes way for the toddler bed and little fingers need a table for their colouring. ‘Suddenly they don’t want Peter Rabbit any more,’ says Wood. ‘Girls inevitably want princesses, ponies or dogs while boys want cars. They have very fixed ideas about what they want but then, by the time there are 12, they hate it all again and want to paint everything black and orange.’

For parents who don’t have the money or the inclination to orchestrate three complete room redecorations in 12 years, careful planning can limit the expense. The nursery can be set up so that the cot can be changed for a toddler bed and the changing mat for a table and chairs without requiring a new layout. ‘If the client is considering built-in joinery, it’s a good idea to make everything adult-sized from the start,’ says Kohn. Carolyn Trevor of Trevor Lahiff Architects tries to limit the theming. ‘We try not to let it get too silly or the children get sick of it sooner,’ she says. ‘And it’s good to limit the use of pink to one thing, like the carpet.’

Edwards-Jones adds: ‘A quick fix is to have a feature wall of paper that can easily be changed in a couple of years.’

Much is spoken of children’s use of technology but, in general, it seems that TVs and computers are kept out of pre-teens’ bedrooms. Ruth Ackers of In and Out Design says: ‘Parents like to keep all the activity in the playroom. The bedroom is a quiet space with bookcases and low-level lighting—it’s somewhere cosy to snuggle up in.’

Most well-to-do homes now have a separate playroom or a family room where televisions, computers and gaming equipment are kept and this is often the place where the children do their homework. In contrast to the cosiness of a child’s bedroom, the playroom tends to be much more functional, says Ackers. Wipe-clean floors, walls and furniture are the order of the day here, along with acres of storage (including plenty of low-level cupboards and drawers that youngsters can access themselves) to keep mountains of toys and games in their place.

Along with truckle beds for sleepovers, storage seems to be the most important aspect of any room inhabited by children. ‘Children today have far many more toys, activities, games and electronics than they had in the past,’ says Kohn. ‘They also spend a lot more time indoors,which means their own areas of the home need to offer space, entertainment and variety.’

This article was first published in idfx Magazine.

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